Sikkim, we were told, was a fairy-tale kind of place. Known for its isolation, its mystical monasteries, its princesses and chogyals and Himalayan people estranged from modern life, this tiny thumbprint of a state was said to possess an air of myth and magic quite unlike anywhere else in India.
And presiding over it all, the great pretender: Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world and Sikkim’s most sacred landmark. Famed for its disappearing act (the snow-capped 8,586m peak can remain hidden by cloud for weeks at a time), this temperamental monolith has outwitted travellers for centuries. “If only we could see the range—just a glimpse—everything would be perfect,” says Indranath Chowdhury, one of the frustrated tourists in Satyajit Ray’s film Kanchanjangha.
With just under one lakh inhabitants, Gangtok is diminutive, but its prosperity is evident everywhere—from the sharply dressed teenagers shopping at Levi’s and Tommy Hilfiger to the buzzing casino. Partly the legacy of centuries of cross-border trade, this affluence also reflects Chief Minister Pawan Chamling’s ambition to make Sikkim the ‘Switzerland of the East’. The income of pre-1976 residents is tax-exempt, there are strict rules on recycling and tree conservation, and Chamling hopes to make the entire state carbon neutral.
Here, we expected comfort—after all, we were staying at the Elgin Nor Khill, or house of jewels, which was built in the 1930s as a treasury for the Sikkimese royal family. The building is now an old-fashioned hotel decorated in grand Bhutia style, with walls displaying photos of Sikkim’s last Chogyal, Palden Thondup Namgyal, his American wife, Hope Cooke, and their glamorous offspring.
Gangtok has plenty of ways to keep a visitor amused for a day or two. Seeing delft-blue skies outside our hotel window, we headed to Tashi Viewpoint, where we were promised spectacular views of the Kanchenjunga massif. A Bhutia couple had made this scenic spot their work space: the husband manned an ancient brass telescope, helping visitors pick out each peak in turn, while his wife helped tourists pose for photos in traditional costume. The mountain-scape behind them could have been printed on a photographer’s paper backdrop—so vivid were its whites and blues.
The Gangtok Ropeway provided dizzying views of the city and its bucolic surroundings, while the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology’s collection of Buddhist artefacts was a treasure-box of mystical, intricate objects. At the state-run handicrafts centre, we watched Sikkim’s state symbol, the red panda, being immortalised on handwoven carpets. (As the poor red panda is endangered to the point of near-extinction, the rugs were probably the best chance of a sighting we had.) And at the charming Enchey Monastery, where the spirits of Kanchenjunga are said to reside, we made offerings to the mountain gods, imploring them to stay visible for just a few more days.
Just 60km from the Sikkimese border with West Bengal, Darjeeling was part of Sikkim until the 1830s, when the East India Company leased it from the chogyal as its summer headquarters. Tension between the two parties led to the British annexation of Darjeeling in 1850; post-independence, the territory was merged with West Bengal. Nowadays, there is little of Sikkim left in the area. What it does share with its motherland is eye-watering views of Kanchenjunga—or so we were told.
For it was in Darjeeling that our luck ran out and the clouds set in. We left Gangtok and our last Shakti village home and drove four or so hours to the Glenburn Tea Estate, which lies across the Teesta valley from Darjeeling town. Glenburn is a working tea plantation; over 10 years ago, the plantation house was converted into a boutique hotel by its owners. Even without the Kanchenjunga views, it was gorgeous. From the filigree-work veranda dripping with crimson creepers to our roll-top baths and morning ‘bed tea’ served on vintage china, the place perfectly embodied the gentility of old Darjeeling.
The town itself was less romantic. By the time we arrived in Darjeeling proper, the sky was leaden, the air damp and chilly. Kanchenjunga was long gone and so, it seemed, was the air of magic that had defined our trip so far. Though the Elgin, Darjeeling our quaint colonial-era lodgings, and the gingerbread houses along The Mall evoked some sense of what must have been, much of the town felt charmless, choked by traffic and day-trip crowds. A sad zoo and even less inspiring mountaineering museum did nothing to lift our spirits.
So we did not have high hopes for the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway or toy train, described by the British explorer Francis Younghusband as ‘a most ridiculous little railway’. Puttering backwards along a main road as cyclists and pedestrians overtook us and soot came in the window in great belches, I could see his point. But halfway to Ghum—the world’s second highest train station—we disembarked from the little blue steam engine to take in the view.
As we stood peering down into the valley, a chink in the clouds appeared. Suddenly, the town was bathed in an unearthly apricot light—the imposing monastery, the conifer trees, the colourful clapperboard houses. As the train blew its whistle and we climbed back on board, it struck me that, even without the presence of the mighty Kanchenjunga, there was still much that was magical about this place.